On the front page recently of my local paper, the Houston Chronicle, were two articles that resonated, the subjects juxtaposing poetically – love letters and museums.
The art of letter writing, truly writing, putting pen to paper is a dying form. It is an art because each letter written is a piece of creativity penned from the soul. It doesn’t matter if grammar isn’t punctilious, if spelling is questionable, if the crossouts are numerous. What matters are the sentiments behind the words; the desire to share feelings, thoughts, ideas, apologies, sympathies with relations, friends, lovers – hands touching paper that will then be touched by the recipient.
Think of the first tentative birthday card drawn and written by your child. The emotions felt then will continue to be felt each time that precious piece of raggedy paper is come across, in a keepsake box, a desk, a file long forgotten.
Ronald Reagan’s letters to his wife told his story from struggling actor to President. The letters Winston Churchill wrote to his ‘darling Clemmie’ gave clues about the man behind the cigar. Zelda in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald described their quarrelling as ‘little fusses’ that she loved making up. And of course letters in the Bible guide many.
Donated last week in Houston to the African American Library at the Gregory School were letters the Reverend William Lawson and his wife Audrey wrote to each other between September 1952 and January 1954 when they married, having only met eight times before the wedding. The letters offer a personal glimpse into the early dreams and hopes of a young seminarian and future civil rights leader and his newly graduated social worker wife-to-be. Her letters were hand written and though Reverend Lawson typed his responses they were personalised with pen and ink sketches that defined his mood. They are to be kept for future generations to marvel over, both the sentiments expressed and the quaintness of the delivery. The postal service.
Without a museum or library to donate them to those letters would in all probability end up in the shredder. A personal history through an emerging time would be lost. A story untold. Which is why museums, art galleries and libraries will continue to be the repositories of our lives.
The American Association of Museums held their annual conference in my city last week. (We have a 150 museums in Houston so were a just choice.) Amongst issues pondered were how best to thrive in ever-hectic lives where art and information is at our fingertips. Visit the Louvre, virtually for example.
But we people are inherently curious and like the tangible, and because of that museums will survive the electronic age. We love to peer into someone else’s life. To read of their hopes, their ideas, their loves. And whilst it may be convenient to pull up a website, the essence of the words, the shade of the paint, the spirit of the sculpture does not wholly satisfy the viewer’s soul unless actually seen.
There was talk along the halls of the George R. Brown Conference Center of the ‘learner era’ in which “education is lifelong, mediated by software”. Forgive me but I thought learning has always been life long, and honestly I’m not sure I want to be ‘mediated’ by a machine.
Though machines do seem to play a part is some major moments in our lives now. No longer do we have to enunciate our desires – just have them emblazoned on the scoreboard at a baseball game or football match as the punters wait for the television studios to allow play to resume. “Tracy will U marry me?” is followed by a quick scan of the crowd until the cameras find the couple. Look! There they are! The man on bended knee between the rows of seats on the bleachers or stands holding out a solitaire worth four month’s salary, the girl blushingly kissing her prospective groom, “yes”! There is a collective aaah and the next inning is played.
Hallmark has done a remarkable job of taking over from us ordinary people. No longer do we need to think about how to express our feelings – just reach for a card from the rows at the supermarket. But at least we still have to handwrite the salutations, and sometimes the envelope.
I can’t wait to see the Lawson letters safe now in the museum. I wonder what story could be found in letters, written straight from the heart, in your local museum?